MOLIÈRE directed by Laurent Tirard, written by Tirard and Grégoire Vigneron, with Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante and Ludivine Sagnier. 120 minutes. Subtitled. A Christal Films release. Opens Friday (August 10). Rating: NNN
Actor Romain Duris was discovered on the streets of Paris, and you can see what the casting director saw in the scruffy kid waiting impatiently outside a high school.
Duris's flinty eyes are intense and restless, his cheekbones strong, but mostly you notice that underbite. It gives his face a hungry, wolf-like appearance, as if he's about to break into a grin or devour you for his next meal. Possibly both at the same time.
Director Laurent Tirard makes ample use of Duris's hunger in this watchable if overlong biopic about the French playwright.
When we first meet Molière, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, he's with his poor acting troupe on the road to Paris. They've just spent 13 years in the provinces performing farces. But like a 17th-century Woody Allen, Molière wants to do more than just make people laugh. He wants to be taken seriously.
Soon the frustrated writer ends up in jail, and then for his freedom agrees to write a comedy for a bumbling rich merchant named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) so the married merchant can impress a young noblewoman named Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier).
If you're at all familiar with Molière's plays, especially Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, those names will be familiar to you. Tirard and co-writer Grégoire Vigneron play liberally with his plots and characters - and no doubt a French audience, schooled in Molière, would be smiling throughout.
The script's point is that Molière needed to see first-hand the foibles and follies of France's nobles and nouveaux riches - their silly liaisons, their petty crimes, their snobbery - to create his own brand of biting social satire. What he came up with went beyond farce: laughter mixed with tears. After all, in genuine comedy, tragedy's not far away.
The movie succeeds in showing how acting and theatre infuse everyone's lives, even if they don't know it. By the end of the film, everyone will have pretended to be someone else: for love, money, a hand in marriage.
I'm making the film sound academic, and it's anything but. As in Molière, there are plots and subplots, disguises and people hiding under tables. (This being a period piece, those costumes are elegant and gorgeous, the tables an antique dealer's wet dream.) Some of it's funny, some of it falls flat.
But the acting is superb. You literally won't be able to take your eyes off Duris, who in one memorable scene rises to the challenge of impersonating a series of horses to Jourdain to show what acting is all about. Even Jourdain is given his moment of grace in a later poignant scene that's rich with theatricality.
The women have less to do, but Laura Morante's Mme. Jourdain is a refined but principled woman who knows what a boob she's married to, while Sagnier, in a small but key role, plays her bored party girl with icy froideur.
But it's Duris and that strong, determined jaw you'll remember.